Lamentable Response

The UO loses a teachable moment

It is difficult not to lament the fate of the University of Oregon in light of the inept administrative response to what should have been seen, at worst, as a teachable moment gone awry. 

On Halloween a respected scholar, in the privacy of her own home, attempted to open a discourse about white privilege using props consisting of a blackened face, a stethoscope and a white coat.

Someone without the wit to understand the intellectual exercise or the courage to voice his or her concern, instead resorted to what can at best be seen as a cowardly tactic — publishing a photo of the costume props out of context.

Suddenly, 23 members of the law school faculty, who are either fools or sheep, called for the scholar to resign and the administration failed to gather the facts before issuing a sincerely fatuous letter including one especially odious paragraph:

We condemn this action unequivocally as anathema to the University of Oregon’s cherished values of racial diversity and inclusion. The use of blackface, even in jest at a Halloween party, is patently offensive and reinforces historically racist stereotypes. It was a stupid act and is in no way defensible.”

This feckless and uninformed behavior of UO president and provost in their letter to the campus on the day after the alleged racist incident is appalling. They paid no heed to the threat against academic freedom inherent in the mob mentality brought about by a faceless assassin using social media. 

Failure to understand the facts before issuing such a letter would be a grave error by any university president. When the president is a lawyer, such a failure raises questions as to his professional competence. Opinion is not fact and propitiation without investigation is not leadership.

The subsequent “investigation” of the incident concluded that the university’s interest in preserving a learning environment free of racial harassment outweighed a faculty member’s free speech rights and academic freedom. What nonsense. To see the incident as racial harassment reflects a willingness to confuse narrative with reality — a dangerous consequence of post-modern thinking. While it is important that students feel physically safe, the University is under no obligation to shield them from often uncomfortable intellectual positions. A rigorous education ensures that students confront and defend their most cherished values and beliefs. Anything less does them a disservice. 

This debacle has embarrassed those of us who cherish academic freedom. One can only hope for a strong response from the University Senate.

It remains to be seen whether the university will remain among the community of academic institutions or devolve to a poorly run business under a board of trustees that collectively seems to see academic freedom of inquiry purely as a tool of capitalism and hires accordingly.

Shawn Boles, Ph.D. is an experimental psychologist, who retired from the University of Oregon’s University Center on Human Development in 1999.